In this interview, Don Sweeting reveals how Pinehurst Resort came to be awarded the 2014 US Open AND the US Women’s Open … to be contested at Pinehurst No. 2 in consecutive weeks. And what exactly are Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw doing to No. 2?
Golf Conversations: We’re in the office of Don Sweeting, overlooking the putting green at Pinehurst Resort. You must be doing some important stuff here to get an office with a million-dollar view like this.
Don Sweeting: I’m the Executive Vice-President for golf and club operations. I’ve been in the business since right out of college where I played college golf.
GC: Where did you play?
DS: At East Carolina University, as a four-year scholar athlete. Then I got right into the PGA apprentice program and have been in the industry ever since.
GC: Don’t tell me you’re one of those guys who started playing golf when you were six and broke 70 in two months.
GC: I hate you guys!
DS: I won a couple of junior tournaments right off the get-go when I was 11 and 12, and loved it ever since.
GC: Where was this?
DS: Florida. A place called Merritt Island. It’s near Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach.
GC: “I Dream of Jeannie” headquarters!
DS: (laughter) That’s right.
GC: So you grew up in this small area and had a talent for golf. Did your parents play?
DS: They played a little bit. Then we came up to North Carolina and I played on the high school golf team in Chapel Hill. Then I went to East Carolina, and played college golf there.
GC: An actual scholar-athlete.
DS: How about that?
GC: Did you always know that you wanted to have a career in golf?
DS: I really did. I was around it all the time in high school. It was so much fun; I enjoyed the game, and had so much respect for the game.
GC: Did you take lessons?
DS: In high school, I was taking lessons from an assistant golf pro at the University Golf Course. He was a great guy. He had a really big influence on me in terms of honoring the game and playing as much as you could and as hard as you could.
GC: What was his name?
DS: Tom Waters. He’s no longer in the business.
GC: Did you enter the PGA program out of school?
DS: Sure did. I stayed right there in Greenville, NC and became an assistant pro at Brook Valley CC. I worked in the office for a single owner named Harold Thomas. He was a lifelong PGA member, just died this past year at age 90. I learned an awful lot from a single owner like that, because you run things a little differently when it’s just one golf course. It was a private club, it was nice to be in a family-owned business and be exposed to the bookkeeping side of the business.
GC: What surprised you about the golf club business?
DS: At the time in the early ‘80s, when golf was booming and doing well, I didn’t realize how difficult it was financially. I thought: here’s this wealthy individual owner – when you get out of college you think everyone is wealthy – he wasn’t bringing in all these millions of dollars. It wasn’t like the business was earning all this money. All the members thought it did and so did the staff.
It was nice being an assistant pro, but also being an assistant to the bookkeeper taught me about financial statements. So early on, with a business degree, and getting involved with the administrative part of the business, I began to see the picture. To me, that experience was much better than just the professional side in terms of learning the business.
GC: I guess when you go to a private club and everything looks well manicured, you assume that all is well. But you never really know what’s coming in and what’s going out.
DS: It was a positive cash flow but I just assumed it was hundreds of thousands and it wasn’t like that. Even the internal salaries that the owner pulled out from the business, his was small.
GC: He was putting it back into the business.
DS: Which was good, he kept making improvements. That was a good experience. Then I came to Pinehurst in the late ‘80s and worked here as an assistant pro. And then I became a club manger at nearby Pinewild.
That club was managed by ClubCorp. I was with ClubCorp for about 22 years. I became a general manager and then a regional manager. I had 11 clubs up and down the East coast that I was responsible for. Boy, what a learning experience … picking up the membership side of the business and how to sell memberships and outings and drive revenues.
Then you had the operations side that had to take care of the members and the guests. Because if you didn’t provide the experience, they wouldn’t stay.
GC: ClubCorp owns dozens and dozens of clubs, don’t they?
DS: Hundreds. Just over 200 at the time and they still do. Pinehurst is no longer part of the ClubCorp family. The owner, Bob Dedman, sold ClubCorp at the end of 2006 and kept Pinehurst for himself. So it’s just the family that owns Pinehurst now.
ClubCorp had all this experience – they were in business since 1957 – which I was able to learn from. I was learning from all the vice presidents, your fellow professionals and managers, food and beverage managers, chefs, just a plethora of knowledge.
GC: I’ll bet you had no idea coming out of college that it could be so complicated.
DS: Right. Very complicated. But it’s unlike anything else. “If you’ve only been at one club,” we always had this saying at ClubCorp, “you’ve only seen one club.” When you’re drawing on the experience of 200 clubs, plus the department heads who are the movers and shakers of each club that are operating it, then you’re really gaining some experience and knowledge.
We would have meetings a couple of times a year; discussions with specific strategy topics that were discussed for a couple of hours with your peers … and you could learn from all of their experiences at once.
GC: And what were some of the more interesting things you discovered?
DS: You had problem areas and you had areas of growth: membership, catering, and golf. But everyone still had problems, no matter what. As nice as it seemed, even if you were making money, you still had problems here and there. It didn’t matter if it was an employee problem, staff that didn’t show up on time for work, whatever it was, even if it was minor, each club still had problems.
GC: Of all the many ClubCorp clubs that you were involved with, did you have one or two that were your favorites … besides Pinehurst?
DS: The Hilton Head area was nice. The Golf Club at Indigo Run was a very nice club. Stonhenge in Midlothian, VA was a club that was struggling when ClubCorp stepped in – I really liked that golf course. We were fortunate to have a Buy.com Tour event there. So we were able to continue fixing up the golf course to get it ready for that event.
I have a warm spot in my heart for that club; seeing all the improvements and all of a sudden, gee, you’ve got a tour event in such a short time frame … I really like that place. And the golf course was challenging. The tournament director, who was an old friend, called me and said, “We’d like to do a tour event at your place.”
My first question was, “Have you ever been here?”
He said, “No. But I’ve heard a lot about it.”
I said, “It used to be really good, but that’s why our company’s here now … it really went into the tank. We have a lot of fixing up to do.”
He asked, “Would you mind if I come by and see it?”
And I said, “I’d prefer you to do that because I’m not going to say ‘yes’ over the phone until you see the place.”
So he showed up a few weeks later and said, “We can make this work.”
I was worried about the players shooting really low scores, like 63 every day. So we got the course very firm and the greens very fast. It wasn’t a long golf course but we added 6 new tee boxes to get it to average length. But there were no low numbers out there and it was difficult. And the players loved it. All clubs have problems. I’m sure even Augusta National has problems some times.
GC: If they did, they wouldn’t talk about them.
DS: (laughter) That’s right. You’d never know about them.
But there’s always a member who arrives late for his tee time and holds up the next three groups. You always have those little problems; I guess it was comforting to hear that every other club has those problems. That’s what you take away from these meetings: all the clubs had a lot of similarities; even if it was a dining club and people always showed up late for their reservation. Well, that’s the same thing as being late for a tee time. So every club’s not perfect; it may look that way, it may seem that way, but they put on a great façade. There are always things to overcome.
GC: You must have traveled a great deal.
DS: Quite a bit of travel. That was part of the learning process. Because when you experience each club, whether it’s in the Northeast or the Southwest, you’ve got to see how the clubs were different. And by different … most of the clubs took on the personality of the area. For example, at Pinehurst, it’s Southern hospitality. Each club had a unique personality. And if it didn’t have a personality, why would members join, or why would golfers want to go there and enjoy the golf, food, swimming, etc.?
GC: How did you get back here to Pinehurst?
DS: When the ClubCorp sale was impending, I felt that there were going to be changes in the company. There was an opening here at Pinehurst. My wife is from this county, Moore county. Her family is here and my mother lives here. So it seemed perfect timing to say, “Let’s come on back.” And why wouldn’t you want to come back to Pinehurst? My roots have always been in golf. My passion’s always been golf. So why not come back to a great place?
GC: Do you ever get a chance to play golf anymore?
DS: I’m going to play this Saturday. I get out on an occasion. I certainly go look at the golf courses with our superintendents.
GC: Well, looking is one thing … but isn’t it just a little bit tempting to gaze out your window and see…
DS: It’s very tempting. Just look how beautiful it is today! It’s sunny and 75 degrees.
GC: Listen, Don … we’ll go play nine holes…
I know people here, I can probably get us on.
DS: I’d love to. But I’m going to play this Saturday. But I never get to play enough, to answer your question. If I was on a four-week vacation, I’d probably play as much as I could.
GC: Maybe when you retire, you’ll be a starter or a ranger and you’ll play…
DS: Four or five times a week. But I never get to play now.
GC: That’s got to be difficult.
DS: Yeah, it is.
GC: And correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t a lot of people who get into the golf business think they’re going to play all the time?
DS: There’s an expectation in the hospitality industry that the young kids should know and that is: it’s a weekend/holiday business. But everyone also expects you to be there for reporting and financial management Monday through Friday. So it’s tough.
GC: Has it been difficult for your wife with all your traveling and working long hours?
DS: Well, she knew from the beginning that this is my career, this is what I do. Before we even got married, just a couple years out of college, she knew.
GC: Do you have kids and do they play golf?
DS: Two kids, my son just took up golf last year at age 14. We just played last Friday; it was a great day, just like today.
GC: How’s his golf?
DS: It’s getting better. He shot 89 but that was good. I had a good day, I was even par.
GC: Fabulous! Do you think your son has the passion for the game?
DS: He does. I think he’s about caught the golf bug. So it’s great. And I have a daughter in college. She doesn’t understand the game, doesn’t care for it, but that’s fine. I never forced her into it.
GC: What should I tell my readers about Pinehurst that they might not know?
DS: We’re in love with the project on No. 2 that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are doing. They’re traditionalists about the game in terms of their architecture. Ben’s a noted golf historian and I think they’ll return the character that Donald Ross created here on No. 2. They’ve begun work on the project and it will be finished next spring.
GC: They’re re-doing a little bit at a time?
DS: A little bit at a time, about 3-4 holes at a time. They’re returning the sandy waste areas and a few mounds and bunkers to the way they had been. They have photographs … they spent hours and hours researching. The curator at the Tufts Archives put together a slide show of all the photos she could find from about 1936 — when the greens were just grassed — through the US Amateur in 1962. Each photo was categorized by hole. And we sat there and looked at all the photographs for hole 1 and hole 2, all the way through. It was amazing how much effort they put into trying to figure out what the golf course looked like, and what the intent of Ross’s design was.
GC: Speaking of golf courses, what do you think of Jim Hyler’s speech about allowing courses to become more natural, i.e. brown? Is that something Pinehurst is considering?
DS: We’re cognizant of that. One of the efforts or byproducts of our work on No. 2 will be along the lines of using less water. That’ll be in keeping with Ross’s design intentions. After his death in 1948, there was irrigation put in before the US Amateur. It was just a center-line row that went down each hole, and that provided the skeleton or backbone of the design of the golf course
So now we get to use that original center line to determine what the shape of the golf course is going to be. It’s perfect. Most of the original iron pipe is still in the ground. Anytime it busted in the last 60 years, it’s just been repaired; it’s never been replaced. So we have that guideline to follow which is just outstanding for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
They’ll only have the fairways irrigated 70 feet from the center each way, so about 140 feet across. All the other areas that we used to irrigate: no longer. Which is probably two thirds of the irrigation heads.
GC: You say “no longer.” When did that start?
DS: We stopped the irrigation when they began the project the end of January. The average number of sprinkler heads on one hole is about 45. We’re going to be down to about 15. With our computer-generated irrigation control, it’s easy to turn off the other 30 heads.
GC: This is just No. 2 we’re talking about?
GC: And you decided to do this because …
DS: Of Coore and Crenshaw’s recommendation. This goes back to Jim Hyler’s interest in sustainability. That’s the way the movement’s working for a lot of reasons. One: we’ll save all the effort and energy on labor and mowing the grasses; so the tractors will be using less gas and oil. That’ll help the carbon footprint. We’ve already mentioned the irrigation we’re going to save. We use water run-off here; we don’t use well water, we don’t use potable water, we use run-off. But we’re still saving that water that won’t be on the golf course.
In some locations where you have plans like this – like in the deserts – they’ll save a lot of water. And we’ll save on the gas, oil, and the labor by not doing the areas outside of the main fairway; they want it to be natural. Whatever grows, grows. Obviously, we don’t want any weeds out there, but they don’t want us to maintain those areas. They want them to be natural like they used to be when Ross was here.
GC: So if one of the homeowners decided to plant a couple of pot plants there…
DS: We would leave it. We’re supposed to leave it alone … Let them have their fun!
GC: That could end up paying for the whole resort if you grew enough of that stuff! (That was a joke, everybody out there, so just relax.) Now, are there any plans to do similar “sustainable” things with your other courses?
DS: We are looking at the other courses. No. 2 had a specific character in mind and maybe part of No. 1. The other courses didn’t really have that character to them. So we’ll continue to maintain those courses as they were designed.
But we made big strides this last year with reducing the amount of maintenance we’ve had to do on the courses. Which is part of Jim Hyler’s speech and the USGA’s push. If the courses continue to spend way too much money, they won’t be sustainable. Golf pricing has dropped so much that there are hardly any net profits anymore. The revenues aren’t there to support it. We’ve had less golfers entering into the marketplace, less are playing because it’s disposable income, so you have to get your costs down and that’s one of the ways to do that. And the by-product is helping the environment greatly. It’s a big circle that should work well.
Now there will still be the plush privates…
GC: Where money is no object. But I think golfers need to be educated that this is not a bad thing, just because it’s not emerald green doesn’t mean it’s not golf. When people change their attitudes a little bit, it’ll make it a lot easier. You know how golfers are, they always say, “This is a dirt track …grrr … this is a cow pasture…”
DS: “This is a goat ranch.” But if you look back 20 years ago when irrigation systems and mechanical equipment wasn’t so sophisticated, there were a lot of good golf courses, but a lot of it was weather dependent. If you were in Texas, it could be dry and hard and that’s how they’d play the tour events. And it was ok, you had to adapt and adjust. Usually, at tour events, the ground is always firm anyway and they do use less water a few weeks before the event. Because they want the surfaces firm and fast. That helps the maintenance team groom the fairways and the greens and tees. And it makes the course more reliable for the tour players.
GC: And it’s also good for their driving statistics!
DS: (laughter) And the members and guests that get to play after a tour event, they say, “Man, these greens are hard.” And they are. The balls roll from the fairways into the rough when it’s firm and fast.
GC: Tell me how you got this USGA Open double-header coming up in 2014.
DS: Wow. I’ll tell you the story but you should get it from the source, Don Padgett. David Fay was in town for another engagement. He’s the Executive Director of the USGA. He asked Mr. Padgett for a breakfast meeting.
Mr. Padgett didn’t think much of it until David said, “Let’s go to the Track.” Which is the horse track restaurant over here. They took a golf cart over there, which Mr. Padgett thought was a little funny. And after they got started, David said, “The reason we’re here is because we’d like you to do the Women’s Open.”
Mr. Padgett thought he’d meant it to be at Pine Needles where it had been in the past. And David Fay said, “No, at Pinehurst.”
Mr. Padgett asked him, “When would you like to do this?”
And David said, “Oh, right after the men’s.”
Mr. Padgett about fell out of his chair.
GC: The week after?
DS: The week after. Mr. Padgett couldn’t believe it.
GC: It’s never been done before.
DS: That’s how it came about. Every business has been affected by the present economic situation. Including the USGA. I think they wanted to try this because if you think of the infrastructure that’s required for an Open … for the men or the women … wow, it’s a lot.
GC: It’s practically like building a city.
DS: Parking, volunteers, food & beverage, hospitality, all the stands … there is so much that has to happen, it just made sense to combine them into one. Because none of the infrastructure has to move. And it’s no different from the recent NCAA basketball championships. The women’s attendance wasn’t as large as the men’s. That’ll be the same for the Opens and that’s ok. That’s just the way it is with where the interest level is. But I think it will add interest to the Women’s Open at Pinehurst. They’ll be playing the same venue as the men, so there’ll be all these challenges back and forth: Who plays what shots better? How do they play the greens?
GC: Obviously, the women will be playing from more forward tees, so their drives will be landing in different places from the men, so you’re not going to have a divot problem.
DS: No. But if you take each hole from an overhead view with a helicopter, you can tell exactly where to place the tees. You have your average distances the men hit it, and then the women, so you just play a little game and move the tee markers from an overhead picture and then they’ll know exactly where they’re going to play from. It’ll be rather easy.
GC: I guess the only possible problem would be the cross walks?
DS: Those will be planned in the same fashion. Cross walks may be a little closer to the tee, but that’ll be easy for them to plan. It’ll be a fun two weeks; it’ll be stressful, but it’ll be fun.
GC: I don’t think you’re going to be getting much sleep for those two weeks.
DS: (Laughter) No.
GC: You’ll be sleeping right here. You could probably rent this space out to somebody for $20,000. Put a little cot in here and a hot plate…
DS: (laughter) Yeah, you wake up, have breakfast, and you’re right here at the putting green!
GC: Do you think they’ll have the rough the same for both Opens?
DS: I think it’ll be a little less for the women. It makes sense to have the women after the men for two reasons. One, is the rough. Second, is the firmness of the greens. For the men’s Open, the greens will be extremely hard. For the women, they like it firm but not quite as hard as the men’s. So a little bit of water in the evenings will help get them to the right firmness that they want for the ladies, so that’s easy.
We’ll have a double-watering cycle Sunday night after the men’s Open. You’ve got a couple of days to get the practice rounds just perfect. After playing on Sunday, if they’re certain there’s not a playoff, you can start mowing the rough. And blow it and clean it up. So if it’s a ½ or ¾ inch less, it’s pretty easy to take care of the women.
GC: Would the guys have to be working through Sunday night to do this?
DS: No. There’ll be enough mowers and staff to take care of it on Sunday. The last tee times on the East coast will be about 3 o’clock. Once they’re already on the back nine, technically, we could start mowing the front. Even if we have to wait until dusk, we could get most of it done with a lot of mowers. And just finish it up on Monday morning.
GC: How many guys would be working in maintenance and grooming for No. 2?
DS: In the change preparation from the men’s to the women’s Open, we’ll probably have more than normal. Perhaps 60 … it could be more than that.
GC: What’s the usual amount?
DS: Around 50. It’ll be quite a few more because normally we wouldn’t be mowing the rough. We want to get it done as quickly as we can, and I’m sure that’s what the USGA wants. We’ll have many more trained volunteers and have to borrow that much more equipment.
GC: Let’s hope for no playoff on Monday.
DS: (Laughter) Boy, that would be something. We would be following play then with the mowers. That would be difficult.
GC: One last question: for a young person who wants to have a career in golf, what would your recommendations be in terms of education, internships, mentoring, that sort of thing.
DS: Let’s go to education first. Choose a college or university that you like. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a PGM program – Professional Golf Management. A business degree would be fine, a hospitality degree. Choose the school you want to go to first. That way you’ll be there and have fun for four years.
After that, choose the mentors that you want to be around. And if you have an preference for private or public or resort, try and have your internships there. Plan on gaining experience at three or four locations; that way you can set yourself up for success at the final location you think you want to be at.
There’s a lot to be said for the experience and the relationships you build at those locations in order to end up where you think you want to be.
GC: Is entering the PGA program part of the recipe for success?
DS: You mean the PGM programs at the universities?
GC: No the PGA of America.
DS: Absolutely. If you’re going to become a golf professional, you have to be a PGA member. Absolutely.
GC: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.
DS: Thank you. Are you going to play while you’re here?
GC: I’m going to take a crack at No. 8 tomorrow.
DS: Enjoy yourself, have a great time.
GC: Thanks, Don.